In spite of poor policy design and implementation, NCLB has kids learning more.
Photo by Old Shoe Woman
The anti-testing and accountability drumbeat is constant: A once-rich curriculum has been narrowed to English and math. The arts have been squeezed out. Teachers are teaching to the test. There's no time for recess. And No Child Left Behind is to blame.
These claims are coming not only from the typical anti-test crowd but, increasingly, also from state legislators, governors, and even reformers.
That’s because while some of these claims are probably overblown, many of them are true. Our failure to evolve NCLB and its accountability policies has led to a host of negative unintended consequences, including the aforementioned, the myopic focus on "bubble kids" just below the proficiency cut, and the endless gaming of state tests. But what too few leaders seem willing to admit is that these problems are eminently fixable.
Even more importantly, they are worth fixing. While many would have us believe that there is no value in standards- and accountability-driven reform, the reality is this: In spite of poor policy design and implementation, the vast majority of the high-quality research on standards and accountability policies in general and NCLB in particular finds they've had
This post is adapted from comments delivered at the Manhattan Institute’s Curriculum Counts! event.
If Common Core is really going to "change everything," we must focus on what these standards mean for teaching and learning.
Photo by horizontal.integration
Broadly speaking, there are two categories of school reform: systemic reform and classroom-level reform.
Systemic reforms are those aimed at reimagining school systems, and they include things like charter schools, vouchers, portfolio districts, and even accountability and some systemic teacher-evaluation policies. Classroom-level reforms, by contrast, are those aimed at actually changing what happens in the classroom. They focus, for example, on changing what is taught, how it is taught, or even how student mastery of essential content and skills is measured.
Over the past decade, education reformers have focused the lion’s share of our attention on systemic reform—to the point where conversations about Common Core implementation are often even dominated by how the standards will impact things like state accountability, teacher evaluation, certification, and on.
Of course, those are all important. But if Common Core is really going to “change everything,” we need first and foremost to focus on what these new standards mean for teaching and learning.
Yet, in many ways, the classroom is a black box to systemic reformers. While many leaders have
Donald Campbell was an American social psychologist and noted experimental social science researcher who did pioneering work on methodology and program evaluation. He has also become—posthumously—an unlikely hero of the anti-testing and accountability movement in the United States. In the hands of accountability critics, his 50 years of research on methodology and program evaluation have been boiled down to a simple retort against testing: Campbell’s Law. But a deeper reading of his work reveals a more complicated and constructive message: Measuring progress (using both quantitative and qualitative indicators) is essential; when using quantitative data for evaluation, the indicators can become distorted or manipulated; and there are concrete steps we can—and must—take to minimize data manipulation and distortion.
Campbell’s December 1976 article, “Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change,” has become a flashpoint in the educational accountability debate. There, he argued,
The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."
Foes of testing and accountability frequently evoke this “Law” to argue against the use of standardized tests and test-based accountability. In a May 25 blog post, for example, Diane Ravitch explained:
Campbell’s Law helps us understand why No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are harmful to education…As high-stakes testing has become the main driver of our nation’s education policy, we will
A new report on state-level implementation of Common Core merits some attention—but less for its top-line findings and more for how it confirms what I’m now calling the “Common Core Implementation Gap.”
That’s the miles of daylight between the platitudes about the new standards’ “dramatic,” “transformational” nature and the distressing reality of implementation.
The report’s upside is that we now know more about state-level planning. The downside is that we know nothing more about the quality of that planning—and this is the whole ball of wax.
We’ve made the necessary oblations to Common Core, and now it’s time to get serious about the seriousness of implementation.
This might sound like the classic unfair criticism of a research project—point out what you wanted a study to answer and then shame the authors for looking into something else.
I’m succumbing to this temptation because I’m troubled by all of the Common Core cheerleading going on. Apart from a still relatively small band criticizing the standards for stealing fiction and states’ rights, most reformers contend that Common Core is just shy of avert-your-eyes miraculous.
Tom Loveless had the temerity to wonder if the standards would improve achievement, and the response from their incredulous supporters was, said Loveless, “like putting my hand in a hornet’s nest.”
We’ve made the necessary oblations to Common Core, and now it’s time to get serious about the seriousness of implementation. That means no longer marveling at the shiny hubcaps and supple leather interior
About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Senior Director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she leads the Institute’s work on state, national, and international standards evaluation and analysis.
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